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Saudi Arabia Broke the Bargain
If they’re not on side in the biggest geopolitical confrontation in decades, what’s the point of the partnership?
The United States and Saudi Arabia operate under a sort of grand bargain. The Saudis get American protection, American arms, and the U.S. looking the other way on repression and human rights violations. In exchange, they keep the oil flowing and stay on side in geopolitical confrontations. The partnership has its problems, but the core bargain held, with Saudi Arabia opposing USSR-friendly Arab states during the Cold War, and helping with counterterrorism after the September 11th attacks. This month, the Saudis broke the deal.
The oil cartel OPEC, of which Saudi Arabia is the most influential member, held a meeting in Vienna with an expanded version, called OPEC Plus, co-chaired by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak. Afterwards, they announced a production decrease of two million barrels per day, about two percent of the global total, which will increase energy prices.
This amounts to Saudi Arabia helping Russia counter the American and European pressure campaign targeting Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The production cut undermines efforts to economically reduce Russia’s capacity to make war, incentivize Russia to make peace, and deter any state that’s thinking of similar aggression in the future.
Staying neutral, rather than joining the effort to pressure Russia, would be acceptable. India, for example, has done that, and it’s not ideal, but the U.S. can live with it. The Saudis, however, are throwing Russian president Vladimir Putin a lifeline. This is the highest-stakes geopolitical competition in over 30 years and they’re on the wrong side.
America has supported the Saudis’ military campaign in Yemen, even though it’s failing to achieve its goals and killing a lot of civilians. In October 2019, after Iranian airstrikes damaged Saudi oil facilities, the U.S. deployed about 3,000 troops, two fighter jet squadrons, and some missile defense systems on Saudi soil. In the 1990s, America protected Saudi Arabia, and liberated OPEC member Kuwait, from Saddam Hussein. This security relationship isn’t entirely one sided—Saudi intelligence has helped thwart al Qaeda plots against America—but it isn’t balanced either.
The U.S. regularly looks the other way on Saudi human rights, saying little about policies America condemns in others. It even accepted the brutal killing of Washington Post writer, and Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi in a consulate in Turkey. That was an egregious violation of morality, human rights, and diplomatic protocol ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) himself; and the United States accepted a closed-door trial of some underlings, possibly including some people MBS wanted to get rid of anyway, and then dropped it.
The realpolitik rationale was that MBS is in control of the kingdom, and while Saudi Arabia could be pressured to pay a price for murdering Khashoggi, MBS would see an effort to go after him personally as an existential threat. The U.S. needs a good relationship with Saudi Arabia to keep them in America’s geopolitical orbit. Fears that the Saudis could easily replace the U.S. with China and/or Russia were overblown—America controls the replacement parts for American-made weapons—but it was reasonable to worry about the geopolitical consequences of the ruler of Saudi Arabia seeing the U.S. as a personal enemy and looking for alternatives.
But if the Saudis are already working with Russia to undermine American efforts on this scale, and raising oil prices while the U.S. and many other countries are trying to tame inflation, then what’s the point of the partnership? It’s been far from costless for the United States, and the Saudis aren’t holding up their end.
Saudi Arabia’s actions aren’t necessarily motivated by a desire to see Russia win in Ukraine. On October 5, the day OPEC Plus announced cuts, oil was trading at $87.76 per barrel, a 29 percent decrease from the peak of $123.70 on March 8, two weeks after the Ukraine war started. This would hardly be the first time OPEC cut production to raise prices and make more money.
More importantly, Europe’s efforts to counter Putin’s energy extortion plans by capping the price of Russian oil would, if successful, be the first time a group of states besides OPEC had manipulated the oil price. That represents a threat to the cartel’s, and therefore Saudi Arabia’s, economic power. It’s in their interest to counter it.
But the timing is terrible, and the way they did it looks like choosing Russia’s side. According to John Kirby, the National Security Council’s Coordinator for Strategic Communications, Saudi officials privately acknowledged the production cut would increase Russia’s oil revenues. American officials privately shared analysis arguing against production cuts based on market conditions, and suggested waiting until the next OPEC meeting to see how things develop.
OPEC Plus announced the cuts anyway. It is therefore in America’s interest to remind Saudi Arabia that national interest is more than just economic.
The U.S. government reacted negatively to the announcement, calling out Saudi Arabia more pointedly than any time this century. The White House pulled out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council that’s focusing on Iran and air defense. Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) called for a freeze on U.S. help for Saudi Arabia, vowing not to “green-light any cooperation with Riyadh until the Kingdom reassesses its position with respect to the war in Ukraine.”
America should go further. Start treating Saudi-funded think tanks and lobbyists, and hiring of retired U.S. military leaders as consultants, more like foreign influence operations. See the Saudi-sponsored LIV golf tournament as an attempt to “sportswash” their reputation (and funnel money to Donald Trump, who owns a course that hosted it), and their decision to give $2 billion to Jared Kushner’s investment fund—from which Kushner can take a multi-million dollar commission every year no matter how the investment performs—as a flat out bribe.
Unless the Saudis reverse course—with whatever face-saving measures make it work—the U.S. should begin removing security assistance. Freeze arms sales, including parts and services, and cease any support for Saudi forces in Yemen. Start removing air defense systems. As Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) suggested, take a shipment of air-to-air missiles planned for Saudi Arabia and reroute it to Ukraine. And if partial measures don’t work, withdraw forces from the five U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and end defense cooperation (except, perhaps, for quiet, mutually beneficial intelligence sharing). The U.S. has dozens of bases in Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, and Jordan, more than enough to maintain a strong regional presence.
Hopefully it doesn’t come to that. Hopefully the Saudis see Israel get past Russian air defense systems in Syria, see the Shahed 136 kamikaze drones Iran sold to Russia doing damage in Ukraine, and recognize the security benefits of U.S. partnership.
America compromises a lot for Saudi Arabia, telling itself it’s worth it because it keeps the Saudis on side in big geopolitical matters. U.S. officials should make it clear that the Ukraine war is one of those rare instances, and this time, Saudi Arabia needs to compromise.
Or if they don’t want to, and the end result is the United States gets less entangled with a problematic partner, that’s fine too.